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May 12, 2013 — The Red Book, Part 8

One in a series.

One of the questions that our alumni/ae association asks of us in writing the entries in our Red Book are thoughts on politics. Mine are somewhat complicated, given what has happened in the last 25 years.

In my years of taking political science classes at the undergraduate and graduate-school levels, certain essays, words, and books have stuck with me.

And I think the one work that has been on my mind the most over the last quarter century is “War, Peace, and the Presidency” by Henry Paolucci.

In the book, the noted scholar laid out a neat case against what was perhaps the biggest geopolitical story of the last quarter-century: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.

Part of the argument made in the book is that a balance of power, rather than a dominant superpower, was good for civilization. The absence of regional or political rivalry, he argued, would have led to what Eduard Meyer called “the stimulus to advance, to outstrip competitors.”

Paolucci would have likely seen the collapse of the Soviet Union as a start of a long decline in American civilization, although there are a couple of things he might not have envisioned.

One is the rise and fall of U.S. economic and industrial power over the last 25 years. In the early days after the seeming death of Communism, the United States economy was not only the world’s innovator in many fields, but a hub of worldwide manufacturing and energy production.

Today, the U.S. has ceded a lot of its economic standing to other countries. Clothing manufacturing has moved from China to Lesotho to Bangladesh. Baseballs are sewn in Costa Rica. The U.S. doesn’t produce half of its oil like it used to.

On the other hand, Europe and Asia, for years, were far ahead of the U.S. in the mobile phone market. (Heck, remember when Nokia had about half of the cell phones out there?) Now, it’s Apple and Samsung leading the market, with almost all of the manufacturing not happening on our shores.

Today, the U.S. economy seems to be predicated on banking and investment products (some of questionable ethics and legality) and the export of weapons. The U.S. leads the world in making things that kill other people, whether it is bombs, firearms, or fighter jets.

And the irony is that sometimes those weapons get into the hands of those who would do harm. How much expertise in bombmaking during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came from American combat manuals? How many Stinger missiles given to the Afghan mujaheddin to fight the Soviets were eventually trained on U.S. pilots?

And speaking of the mujaheddin, non-state actors were another trend that Paolucci didn’t foresee. Thus far, a number of Western regimes have justified enormous military spending to fight a so-called “war on terror.”

The problem is that it is impossible to throw money at the problems that non-state actors like al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad pose. To do so is to cause the same kind of military overspending that bankrupted the Soviet Union and has caused enormous budget deficits here.

An enormous economic recession has not helped, either. But I think there is a recognition that it will take certain energy innovations to blunt the economic powers of petro-authoritarian states such as today’s Russia.

Think of it: the moment someone comes up with the fuel cell that either burns its fuel cleanly without leftover chemicals or isotopes, there will be countries out there sitting on top of barrels of sludge rather than their license to print money.

Might that happen in the next 25 years? I’ll have thoughts on technology next week.

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